Early this year, the International News Safety Institute published a book – ‘No Woman’s Land: On the Frontlines with Female Reporters’ – about the safety of female journalists doing their work in war zones or in societies suffering civil strife. The point of the book is to make explicit some of the dangers faced by female media practitioners and offer some practical advice to counter them.
Most of southern Africa is not at war nor is it suffering civil strife. Therefore, one would be compelled to think that female journalists operating within this environment would not be exposed to the dangers such as those suffered, regrettably, by Logan and Sinz. Yet, the threat of physical assault remains ever so fresh chiefly because of the practice of patronage politics by ruling elites, which when reported on and the corrupt acts are exposed, can attract severe backlash, sometimes with devastating consequence.
Containing the threat of sexual violence is slightly complex because of the unpredictable nature of this violation. Yet it may occur where demonstrations, protests or other mass activity is taking place. In July 2011, supporters of the Movement for Multiparty Democracy (MMD) assaulted four Zambian journalists working for MUVI TV in Lusaka with the aim of preventing them from reporting on an illegal land seizure. The TV crew was physically assaulted and the two female staff members were ‘almost raped’ as well. One of the journalists further reported that her aggressors tried to unbutton her shirt as reported by the Lusaka Times.
In societies – and newsrooms – that are still male-dominated, a female journalist suffering a violation of her freedom to execute her duties may go unnoticed, let alone reported. When this violation attracts wider attention, it risks being dismissed casually. It must be asked therefore; what role do gatekeepers in the newsrooms play in preventing media violations from being reported? Are news values such as those on prominence applied also to how violations are reported when suffered by journalists?
Indeed, is there any value in clearly identifying journalists who suffer media freedom violations along gender lines? If there is any reason to do so, it is because this identification would be the best way of articulating the requisite support mechanisms to the journalist who has come under fire. For female journalists, this could mean ensuring that they have access to sanitary, counselling and proper health facilities while in detention.
Also, due consideration must be given to the threats that exist in the day-to-day task of pursuing a story. Male sources may attempt to sexually harass female journalists and even if they were reported and action taken against the perpetrator, it would not have stopped the incident from occurring. How can southern African editors and media managers – most of whom are male – deal effectively with these threats? At a time when most newsrooms are not adequately resourced, it may seem a luxury to furnish female journalists with several protections so as to minimise the risks they face daily.
Yet, it is absolutely necessary that this happens, especially for female investigative journalists. The absence of clear support mechanisms for female journalists who may come under fire threatens their involvement in ‘hard’ beats such as politics, economics and conflicts. A considerable risk abounds in pursuing these beats. But if female journalists are ‘structurally’ discouraged from taking this route, their lack of participation will only help in perpetuating myths around the capacity of male journalists to tackle ‘hard’ news while making the false statement that only ‘soft’ news is for female journalists. This order needs to be upset and female journalists need to be seen differently in the newsroom.
However, seeing female journalists in a positively different way should also mean placing a persistent challenge on the minority status they suffer in the newsroom. A 2010 Gender and Media Progress Study conducted by Gender Links shows that women constitute 29 per cent of journalists in the 14 SADC countries studied. These numbers are growing of course but overall, female journalists are still working in a male-dominated environment, with very few women in senior positions.
The challenges a female journalist may have to battle within her career – physical or sexual violence, discrimination and lack of support – are also largely dependent upon the broader political and cultural context in which she works. Her position and the media house she works for may also have a bearing on the violations she encounters on the job and how they are dealt with.
Perhaps most journalism and media training institutions in southern Africa have a much more significant role to play in challenging the status quo by ensuring that there not only is sufficient interest in their courses by prospective female journalists but also that there is sufficient research to show how newsrooms could benefit and become even more productive if there existed effective support mechanisms for female journalists who risk their lives daily to serve the public.
As the Media Institute of Southern Africa (MISA) has previously noted, the whole idea of seeking, receiving and imparting information is becoming even more complex as efforts to block free access to public information are becoming systematic and deeply embedded in the way governments conduct themselves despite the fact that access to and freedom of information is a prerequisite to development. This calls for a new way of practicing journalism, of adopting innovative safety tactics and strategies to either pre-empt or counter any offensive manoeuvres by those who don’t want to see journalists – female and male alike – do their jobs. It also presents a fertile opportunity for greater attention to be paid to the plight of female journalists who will be working in such environments.
After all, the idea is not to encourage female journalists to gain masculinity or indeed to disenfranchise male journalists; rather it is to ensure that ambition in the newsroom is not punished, nor should excellence in journalism be compromised because of one’s gender.
* Felicie Kempf & Levi Kabwato work in the Media Freedom Monitoring & Research programme of the MISA.